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Michael J Fox Foundation grant awarded to research brain MRI biomarkers in PD

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The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has awarded AI software developer Icometrix a grant to continue exploratory work into brain biomarkers for the disease.

The grant from the foundation, set up by the Back to the Future actor following his early onset Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 1991 at the age of just 29, will support the development of a regulatory-cleared solution to automatically analysing brain MRI scans to improve monitoring of PD patients in clinical routine.

It will also help with patient selection and outcome assessment in multi-centre drug development trials.

The Icometrix research is being led in collaboration with co-principal investigator Kathleen Poston, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford Medicine in California in the US.

This Parkinson’s disease-specific MRI solution will be added to the CE-marked and US Food and Drug Administration-cleared Icobrain portfolio of Icometrix, that also contains solutions for Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, and stroke.

Icobrain tracks brain volume changes to evaluate disease progression, providing precise and relevant change metrics.

Annemie Ribbens, VP science and trials at Icometrix, said: “PD monitoring is typically performed based on clinical scores that are subjective and do not allow for a fine-grained evaluation of disease characteristics. Early and specific prediction of the disease progression is therefore challenging.

“It also restricts our understanding of the underlying neurodegenerative pathophysiology and thereby hampers research on disease modifying therapies in an already highly diverse PD population.

Dementia MRI with segmentation

“With this research, we aim to evaluate brain MRI patterns of PD patients that identify, early on, patients at risk for cognitive or motor problems.”

The first promising results of this project were presented at the Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, in April 2023.

Brain MRI scans from Stanford and the Michael J Fox Foundation‘s landmark Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI) – launched in 2010 to follow people, with and without PD, over time to learn more about how disease starts and changes – were evaluated in terms of volumetric patterns and correlated to corresponding clinical scores for motor and cognitive function.

The results show that regional brain volumetry assessment can serve as an important biomarker in prediction and differentiation of Parkinson’s disease patients at risk for motor and, or, cognitive disability progression.

Nearly 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease. The most common symptoms include motor problems such as shaking and stiffness, as well as difficulties with walking and balance.

In addition, approximately 30% of patients with Parkinson’s develop cognitive problems in the early stages of the disease, with a life-long risk of up to 80%.

However, Parkinson’s is extremely diverse with no two people experiencing the disease in the same way.

Icometrix – which has offices in both Leuven in Belgium and Boston in the US – says this highlights the need for a personalised prognosis and treatment approach.

 

Research

UK body calls for more ageing research backing

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The British Society for Research on Ageing (BSRA) is calling for more public backing in the UK for research to help people stay healthier for longer, as an alternative to charities that support research on diseases.

The greatest risk factor for disease is ageing, but we have very little charitable support for research into how to slow ageing, the organisation warns.

Many diseases such as cancers and heart disease tragically shorten lives far too early, or like Alzheimer’s and arthritis, destroy quality of life for patients and carers. There is understandably huge public charitable support for more research. However, the greatest risk factor for those diseases, and even infectious diseases like COVID, is ageing.

Yet in comparison there is currently very little support for research to understand how we can slow ageing to prevent disease. This approach may be more productive in the long term to fight disease. Furthermore, keeping people healthier for longer, or avoiding chronic diseases all together, would be the most favourable outcome.

The UK population is ageing fast, putting pressure on the NHS and the economy. Despite this pressing problem all around us, there is no accessible way for people to support research into ageing in the UK. The BSRA aims to change that.

With a very small budget and almost completely run by volunteers, the BSRA has successfully funded several small research projects but progress needs to be accelerated. More funding is needed because it takes years to see the effects of ageing, so studies are long. Also ageing affects individuals in different ways, meaning that large numbers of people must be studied to make firm conclusions.

Therefore, there is an urgency to get studies funded and the BSRA has decided to launch an ambitious fundraising campaign to boost research into ageing. Initially, the Society aims to fund a series of one year research projects at the Masters degree level at universities across the UK and with plans to raise much more in the future to support longer and more ambitious projects that will impact the lives of the general public.

Chair of the BSRA, Prof David Weinkove from Durham University, says “The time is now to really get behind research into the biology of ageing. We have fantastic researchers across the country, but they are held back by a lack of funding. Evidence-based research is needed to understand how we people can stay healthier for longer, and to then we must make that knowledge available to as many people as possible”.

Dr Jed Lye says “This is a great opportunity for the public to help, for corporations to contribute, or philanthropists wanting a large impact with a relatively small donation; every £20,000 we raise can fund an entire year of research into ageing and longevity, and gets a budding scientist their research qualification.”

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Older adults less active in society post-pandemic, finds study

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A new study of 7,000 people age 55-plus has found they’re staying at home more and skipping restaurants, the gym and other ‘third places’, since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Years after the US began to slowly emerge from mandatory Covid-19 lockdowns, more than half of older adults still spend more time at home and less time socialising in public spaces than they did pre-pandemic, according to new University of Colorado Boulder research. 

Participants cited fear of infection and “more uncomfortable and hostile” social dynamics as key reasons for their retreat from civic life.

“The pandemic is not over for a lot of folks,” said Jessica Finlay, an assistant professor of geography whose findings are revealed in a series of new papers.

“Some people feel left behind.”

The study comes amid what the U.S. Surgeon General recently called an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ in which older adults— especially those who are immune compromised or have disabilities— are particularly vulnerable.

“We found that the pandemic fundamentally altered neighbourhoods, communities and everyday routines among aging Americans and these changes have long-term consequences for their physical, mental, social and cognitive health,” said Finlay.

‘I just can’t go back’

As a health geographer and environmental gerontologist, Finlay studies how social and built environments impact health as we age.

In March 2020 as restaurants, gyms, grocery stores and other gathering places shuttered amid shelter-in-place orders, she immediately wondered what the lasting impacts would be.

Shortly thereafter, she launched the Covid-19 Coping Study with University of Michigan epidemiologist Lindsay Kobayashi. They began their research with a baseline and monthly survey. Since then, nearly 7,000 people over age 55 from all 50 states have participated.

The researchers check in annually, asking open-ended questions about how neighborhouds and relationships have changed, how people spend their time, opinions and experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their physical and mental health.

“We’ve been in the field for some incredibly pivotal moments,” said Finlay, noting that surveys went out shortly after George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 and again after the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Collectively, the results paint a troubling picture in which a substantial portion of the older population remains isolated even after others have moved on.

In one paper published in February in the journal Wellbeing, Space and Society, 60 per cent of respondents said they spend more time in their home while 75 per cent said they dine out less. Some 62 per cent said they visit cultural and arts venues less, and more than half said they attend church or the gym less than before the pandemic.

While that survey was taken two years ago, the most recent survey taken in spring 2023 showed similar trends, with more than half of respondents still reporting that their socialisation and entertainment routines were different than they were pre-pandemic.

In another paper titled “I just can’t go back,” 80 per cent of respondents reported that there are some places they are reluctant to visit in person anymore.

“The thought of going inside a gym with lots of people breathing heavily and sweating is not something I can see myself ever doing again,” said one 72-year-old male.

Those who said they still go to public places like grocery stores reported that they ducked in and out quickly and skipped casual chitchat.

“It’s been tough,” said one 68-year-old female.

“You don’t stop and talk to people anymore.”

Many respondents reported that they were afraid of getting infected with a virus or infecting young or immune-compromised loved ones, and said they felt “irresponsible” for being around a lot of people.

Some reported getting dirty looks or rude comments when wearing masks or asking others to keep their distance— interpersonal exchanges that reinforced their inclination to stay home.

Revitalising human connection

The news is not all bad, stresses Finlay.

At least 10 per cent of older adults report exercising outdoors more frequently since the pandemic, and a small but vocal minority said that their worlds had actually opened up, as more meetings, concerts and classes became available online.

Still, Finlay worries that the loss of spontaneous interactions in what sociologists call “third places” could have serious health consequences.

Previous research shows that a lack of social connection can increase risk of premature death as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and exacerbate mental illness and dementia.

“For some older adults who live alone, that brief, unplanned exchange with the butcher or the cashier may be the only friendly smile they see in the day, and they have lost that,” Finlay said.

Societal health is also at risk.

“It is increasingly rare for Americans with differing sociopolitical perspectives to collectively hang out and respectfully converse,” she writes.

Finlay hopes that her work can encourage policymakers to create spaces more amenable to people of all ages who are now more cautious about getting sick – things like outdoor dining spaces, ventilated concert halls or masked or hybrid events.

She also hopes that people will give those still wearing masks or keeping distance some grace.

“It is a privilege to be able to ‘just get over’ the pandemic and many people, for a multitude of reasons, just don’t have that privilege. The world looks different to them now,” she said.

“How can we make it easier for them to re-engage?”

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Wellness

Lack of sleep can make you feel 10 years older, study finds

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Feeling sleepy can make you feel ten years older, according to researchers at Stockholm University, who have discovered that sleep may hold the secret to staying young at heart. 

Do you ever find yourself longing for the energy and vitality of your younger years? Feeling young is not just a matter of perception – it is actually related to objective health outcomes.

Previous studies have shown that feeling younger than one’s actual age is associated with longer, healthier lives. There is even support for subjective age to predict actual brain age, with those feeling younger having younger brains.

“Given that sleep is essential for brain function and overall well-being, we decided to test whether sleep holds any secrets to preserving a youthful sense of age,” says Leonie Balter, researcher at the Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, who worked on the study, which is published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

In the first study, 429 individuals aged 18 to 70 were asked how old they felt, how many days in the past month they had not gotten enough sleep, and how sleepy they were. It turned out that for each night with insufficient sleep in the past month, participants felt on average 0.23 years older.

In a second study, the researchers tested whether it was indeed the lack of sleep causing participants to feel older. They conducted an experimental sleep restriction study involving 186 participants aged 18 to 46. Participants restricted their sleep for two nights –only four hours in bed each night – and another time slept sufficiently for two nights, with nine hours in bed each night.

After sleep restriction, participants felt on average 4.4 years older compared to when having enjoyed sufficient sleep. The effects of sleep on subjective age appeared to be related to how sleepy they felt. Feeling extremely alert was related to feeling 4 years younger than one’s actual age, while extreme sleepiness was related to feeling 6 years older than one’s actual age.

“This means that going from feeling alert to sleepy added a striking 10 years to how old one felt,” says Leonie Balter, who states that the implications for our daily lives are clear.

“Safeguarding our sleep is crucial for maintaining a youthful feeling. This, in turn, may promote a more active lifestyle and encourage behaviours that promote health, as both feeling young and alert are important for our motivation to be active.”

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